By Brian Hieggelke
Chicago restaurants lead the nation in innovation, due to the emergence of a new generation of chefs embracing and advancing the “artisanal” locally sourced aesthetic, like Paul Kahan of Blackbird, along with others taking creativity to an exotic extreme, like Grant Achatz of Alinea. They’ve kicked up a fair bit of national attention as of late, with cooing about our cooking from the New York Times, Gourmet magazine and others.
Within an unusually narrow window these last few weeks, three dukes of Chicago’s dining opened new establishments. Two are led by acclaimed chefs—Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra) with Custom House and Michael Taus (Zealous) with Saltaus—and one by restaurateur Terry Alexander (MOD, Mia Francesca) with del Toro. It’s enough to set off a foodie frenzy, if the new places live up to the reputations of their principals.
Every medium has its reviewing conventions and nuances, some more bizarre than others. None more so than restaurants, where critics strive to maintain a level of anonymity that can be so absurd that it becomes the story itself. In Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl’s captivating new “Garlic and Sapphires,” she commits a whole book to the machinations she went through to disguise her identity during her tenure as food critic of the New York Times, including the development of multiple personas—complete with wigs, names and wardrobes—so extreme that at least once her own child did not recognize her. Not surprisingly, her book provides support for her efforts, with stories of dramatically different treatment at the same restaurants when she dined as a frumpy old woman compared to when she came back “out” as the critic from the Times.
The argument, of course, is that anonymity ensures the critic enjoys the “common” experience. In other words, food critics set their standard as the typical, rather than a restaurant at its best. An approach to reviewing common in the hospitality industry, this sets it apart from other live art forms, such as theater, which is normally reviewed, en masse, at a press opening. The reasoning goes that theaters perform for a crowd, while restaurants serve an audience table by table, each “performance” unique. Yet there’s no denying that opening night at the theater is going to be a production at its best—no understudies, a freshly charged cast, and an entire company riding an extra-strong jolt of adrenaline. A related element of this custom is that the food critic pays his own way to conduct his reviews; in virtually every other case, the artistic establishment “comps” the critic. Much hand-wringing goes on in journalism’s ivory towers over the lack of arm’s-length relationships that this practice entails, but it generally has a positive impact on the arts. Even the mighty Tribune reviews a mere handful of restaurants any week, compared to perhaps dozens each in film, theater and music.
John Mariani, the well-known food critic for Esquire magazine, eschews the practice of anonymity and, at times, eats comp meals at restaurants he later writes about. This recently blew up in controversy, when he came to Chicago to check up on our ballyhooed restaurant renaissance, and chose only the far-less-celebrated Butter for his list of America’s best new restaurants, snubbing Alinea and Moto, among others, in the process, with snarky prose that accused the city of being “presently in the sensationalist grip of a few hocus-pocus chefs.”
Another convention in food reviewing is to not review a restaurant too close to its opening, in order to allow the staff and kitchen some time to “get its act together.” This sentiment, from the “see-a-restaurant at its best school,” conflicts with the “common experience” notion that critics go to such elaborate ends to promote. For unlike theaters, which offer discounted “previews” to customers while they season their shows in front of a live audience, restaurants throw open their doors with price points fully intact.
As an occasional critic, I have mixed feelings about the practice of anonymity, even though I play along. But I have a definite belief that if you’re charging full prices, your audience deserves a full experience, and you’re game for a review. Plus, I’m a sucker for the newest of the new. So when Shawn McClain’s Custom House opened up a few blocks from home, I was there on its first Saturday night.
Custom House has taken over the space once occupied by Prairie, just a few doors down from the late, great Printers Row, both pioneers in the neighborhood as well as in embracing an emerging cuisine style that’s come to be known as New American, an aesthetic that McClain has taken to its highest level. As much as I lament the loss of the two legends, I’ve already dined at Custom House as much or more than I ever did at those two—their ambiance always seemed a bit old-fashioned for my taste. Custom House doesn’t stray too far from its stodgier antecedents—the space retains an understated elegance, with flagstone brick and large windows highlighting a simple and stylish interior drawn in muted browns and reds, much like the neighborhood around it. The design deftly plays to two audiences—trend seekers who relish the contemporary and the expense-account tourists who will come here either as guests of the adjacent Hotel Blake, or simply in search of one of those mythical Chicago steaks.
Yes, steaks. For if Spring is McClain’s study of seafood and Green Zebra a lesson in vegetables, this is his workshop for the carnivore. A friend who favors lighter fare dubbed it the “meatitarium” after I described it to her. Custom House, with a name drawn from the neighborhood’s seedy legacy as a onetime center of prostitution, drunken debauchery and fat-cat politicians on the make, is playing to the city’s stockyard legacy. Fortunately, Custom House is throwback in name rather than execution, bringing a lighter touch to the Chicago steakhouse, with an ample offering of seafood and noteworthy salads and vegetables. McClain is a chef who finds his epiphanies in the quality of his raw materials, and Custom House echoes that approach. Sauces and seasonings augment, rather than take center stage, most often to excellent effect. The menu is organized by preparation method, with raw/cured/marinated meats set apart from the roasted meats in the appetizer section; roasted meats separated from braised in the main course. The bone-in rib eye and the prime sirloin are succulent steaks; the braised short ribs so tender that the mouth waters at the memory. Each meat dish is accompanied with a small side, a garnish of sorts, such as the melt-in-your-mouth-and-in-your-heart horseradish cream puffs or the relatively disappointing salt & vinegar “chips,” which lack the pizzazz that the Jays bag delivers. More substantial sides are offered a la carte, including an extensive seasonal vegetable offering, from the conventional (Brussel sprouts) to the more creative (salsify, a root prepared with orange and vanilla). But the potatoes gratin, prepared with sheep’s milk cheese and served in a small casserole, exemplify the restaurant: a simple, conventional dish, perfectly prepared with outstanding ingredients. Irresistible.
Just before my first visit to Custom House, I attended an opening party for Saltaus. Partners Michael Taus and Dr. Nader Salti have built a magnificent space in the West Loop, with sleek, clean lines of polished wood and white walls, a concrete floor and a vast sense of open space. And then there’s the lounge upstairs. As big as the restaurant itself, the lounge offers various seating arrangements, as well as a high-profile DJ booth. House music permeates the entire place, creating a casually festive atmosphere, although it’s ingeniously muted in the main restaurant downstairs by the lounge’s floor above the seating. By the time I left Saltaus, I wasn’t sure whether it was intended to be a restaurant with a great lounge, or a great lounge that also served food. I asked one of the publicists about this, and she responded that they’d planned to wait and see how it works out.
A couple Saturdays later, I decided to see for myself. Since I waited till the last minute, I couldn’t book a reservation before 9:30pm. Perfect for checking out the dining versus nightlife equation. Chef Taus oversees the critically acclaimed Zealous in River North, which he relocated from the suburbs a few years back, a move to bring it closer to the epicenter of the local food media as well as the expense-account diners able to afford its hefty tabs. I suspect Taus might be frustrated by the results to date: while the original cuisine of Zealous placed it in the rarified category of fine dining along with Rick Tramanto, Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz, he never got the same level of attention, even after moving downtown. I figured the casual and stylish Saltaus had the potential to bring Taus into the limelight, and looked forward to trying it out.
The menu quickly elevated my anticipation, with a vast list of ambitious-sounding dishes drawing from a blend of Mediterranean and Asian flavors. The appetizers did little to lower my expectations, with the simple-yet-perfect blend of flavors in the Asian-inspired hummus with teriyaki mushrooms and the tasty, if somewhat doughy, wild mushroom and scallion dumplings.
This is where we have to talk about how important the waiter is to your dining experience, second only to the chef in calibrating the quality of your meal. Of course, anyone can recognize disastrous service, but usually the influence of the waiter is more nuanced. At Custom House on the second visit, our waiter was extraordinarily fluent in the menu and charming in a Southern California kind of way, which made his not-so-subtle prodding to expedite ordering palatable. Especially when we left three hours later, and witnessed a hostess suffering a tongue-lashing from an irate reservation holder; “Sir, it’s Saturday night,” she pleaded. One of my companions observed, “We probably had their table.”
At Saltaus, our waiter was cordial enough, and certainly willing to offer his recommendations from the menu. But when we pressed for feedback on Himalayan red rice risotto with exotic mushrooms or the Asian spice Udon with tomatoes, onions, Shiitake mushrooms, zucchini and marinated tofu—two offerings that had caught our eye—he was of little help. “They’re our vegetarian dishes,” he said. But are they good? “They’re vegetarian,” he shrugged. “I’m a meat guy.” The personal tastes of your waiter will always flavor recommendations, but the best of them will have a sense for every dish on the menu, as well as the ability to steer you away from mistakes. Fearing that this was the latter, we followed his recommendation and ordered a chicken and a seafood dish.
At Custom House, our waiter prevented us from ordering appetizers before we ordered the entire meal, which he ascribed to kitchen flow, but I suspected was really about moving us along on a busy night. Our waiter at Saltaus said exactly the same thing: “The kitchen cooks everything to order, so if you don’t order all together, you might have to wait a long time for your entrees.” Riiiight, I thought. And right he was. The pacing at Saltaus was completely off—our appetizers came quickly, and then we waited an eternity for our entrees—“Aren’t you glad I said to order all at once,” our waiter consoled at one point.
Perhaps due to the increasingly late hour, the entrees did not seem worth the wait. The Asian Tajine of sea scallops was tasty enough, but the chicken kebab with yakitori sauce was simply not exceptional. When a chef like Taus puts something simple like kebab on the menu, you expect transformation—not a typical kebab. And the Szechuan green beans—our waiter’s unequivocal recommendation and a longtime personal favorite in Chinese restaurants—swam in a sweet sauce reminiscent of the Soy Vay I buy at the market, lacking any of the peppered kick that I expect from the dish.
And that’s my biggest complaint with Saltaus—the sauces I tasted all lean heavily on the sweet side of Asian flavors, lacking both the spicier elements I tend to favor or the complexities that can be achieved with Asian herbs and spices.
Dessert, however, brought redemption. The Meyer lemon tart, topped with a crispy brulée and garnished with tart ginger strawberries, was an exceptional finish and a reminder of the hope that lies ahead for this beautiful space. Afterwards, we went up to the lounge for a look. Busy but not crowded, the lounge offers tables as well, for a more casual dining or appetizer experience, one perhaps more befitting the meal I’d just had—good, but nothing special. I’ll be back for another try, but I think I’ll take my dinner upstairs.
Terry Alexander kept his chef (Andrew Zimmerman) and his designer (Suhail) but changed just about everything else when he converted MOD into del Toro. Chris Dexter (Elm Street Liquors) joined him as a partner, and the new venue has a firm footing in the space between restaurant and nightclub, from the large casual lounge area, to the laidback approach to the procession of the meal, to the vibrant music and late hours. A rustic Spanish restaurant bringing the vogue for small plates to Bucktown—why not just call them tapas anyway?—del Toro seems to be firing on all cylinders, even if it is just barely a week old. Of course, my “cover,” loose as it was, might have been blown when the photographer and designer, shooting art for this story, came over to the lounge to say hello when I arrived.
Like all Suhail designs, del Toro is a place intense in its details. But lest you recall only the over-the-top pleasures of the Jetsonian MOD and Okno, or the Wonkarific Sugar, remember that he also constructed Sonotheque and the Middle Eastern Tizi Melloul. This one’s not really like anything else Suhail’s done. From the exterior constructed of barnyard wood, highlighted by an iconic contemporary symbol of a bull, it manages to be vivid, exotic and comfortable all at once, offering further evidence for Suhail’s reputation as one of the top restaurant designers around.
In spite of its precisely detailed design, del Toro stays casual in its execution. For example, a stack of clean plates, to refresh yours as you see fit, is overseen by a vigorous bus boy who carts off your empties and replenishes your plate supply. Meanwhile, our waiter stressed casual ordering like a mantra, which we took to heart. He did a good job of pointing out recommendations from the menu, but his spiel about the grilled calamari—“I like to call them the ‘Fear Factor’ item. They’re whole squids, from head to toe, stuffed with chorizo and squirted with squid ink…”—that unnecessarily psyched us out a bit. The dish is far from grotesque—in fact, I wish the chorizo had been spicier. Both waiter and cocktail waitress raved about the pumpkin and goat cheese croquettes; while rich and flavorful, their subtle pleasures could not quite live up to their advance billing. Most of the plates were outstanding, from the simple pleasures of the Serrano ham and Manchego cheese; the salad of roasted beets, goat cheese and vinaigrette; the grilled bread rubbed with garlic and tomato and the sublime Patatas Bravas—potatoes served like small puffs stuffed with spicy tomato sauce and aioli—that redefines this tapas staple. The menu is broken down between cold plates and hot plates, with the latter ascending in price and portion. We finished with a seared monkfish, recommended by our waiter, that superbly combined flavor with a melt-in-your-mouth flakiness.
del Toro partner Alexander is an acquaintance; my company has done business with one of his other businesses, Sonotheque, in the past. Does this color my perception of del Toro, my enthusiasm for it, above the others? Alexander did not know I was coming to review and, to my knowledge, was not present at the restaurant till I had finished my meal. Still, conventional wisdom might suggest a positive predisposition. Believe what you like, but know that any critic is going to be shaded by the sum of his experiences, and subject to many factors that may affect the outcome of his review. Objectivity is an illusion.
Nevertheless, we enter every restaurant expecting the best: we’re deeply disappointed by less, and far too often mired in the average. Fortunately, Chicago’s chefs have stacked the odds in our favor.
Custom House, 500 South Dearborn, (312)523-0200, customhouse.cc, entrees range from $18-$38. del Toro, 1520 North Damen, (773)252-1500, deltorocafe.com, plates range from $3-$16. Saltaus, 1350 West Randolph, (312)455-1919, saltaus.com, entrees range from $12-$27.